The Scientific Explorer

By Neil Renfrew Cole

Jack Schmitt retrieves a rock sample at Taurus Littrow
The Lunar Module “Challenger”, dwarfed by the hills of Taurus-Littrow

Gene Cernan hauled the drill up off the lunar rover. As he swung the heavy implement across his shoulder, he worried about making a tear in the space suit that protected him from the lifeless vacuum of the moon. He looked back in the direction they had come. He spotted his spaceship parked three miles away; a glinting gold dot nestled between the huge rolling hills of the Taurus-Littrow Valley. As his eyes scanned the horizon, thoughts for his own safety evaporated from his mind, as the crescent Earth came into view, looming large in the dark lunar sky. It was the only source of natural colour in his whole world.

“Jack!”, he shouted at his crewmate. “Stop! Just stop! You owe yourself thirty seconds to drop what you’re doing, and look at the Earth!”

“You’ve seen one Earth,” came the reply, “you’ve seen them all!”

Jack Schmitt studies a huge split boulder at Taurus-Littrow’s “North Massif” hill.

Harrison Schmitt, or Jack as he prefers to be called, was the only scientist to ever go to the moon. At each planned stop of the Lunar Rover, as Gene did the heavy lifting, and set up the experiments, Jack ran off to the nearest interesting rock, and practiced the noble trade that brought him to this astonishing place; geology.

While Gene Cernan marveled at the spectacular view that Taurus-Littrow offered, Jack Schmitt was immersed in a world of subtle colour changes within the layers of a rock, the transition of granites into basalts, formations of igneous rocks or crystals, fields of sand or volcanic glasses. In the language of geology, the moon was talking to Jack Schmitt, telling him a story of epic battles between awesome forces of nature, of long periods of peace turning once again to titanic trauma; of the genesis and apocalypse of worlds.

It was a language that Gene Cernan, and the ten previous moonwalkers, could not understand. Gene could afford to be awed, but Jack felt he owed it to his fellow geologists, the scientific community, and the world at large, to be the one man who would truly bring back the story of the moon as only a scientist could. That was his mission, and all that he cared about. He was happy to let Gene have the view, but if God is in the details, then Jack Schmitt would keep for himself a divine experience.

“We were true scientific explorers,” he said in an interview years later, “we were looking at things that human beings had never seen before. Or if they’d seen them, they weren’t thinking about them in terms of understanding our Earth, and our Solar System, and indeed, the Universe.”

Jack Schmitt, exhausted and exhilarated inside “Challenger”, at the end of Apollo 17’s last moonwalk.
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Neil Cole’s story.